Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Constancy

In a strange chapter in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre muses on that great virtue ethicist--wait for it--Jane Austen. He re-categorizes her fiction as the latest entry into the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of ethics. And if that strikes you as bizarre, it should.

My best guess is that Austen herself operated on a simple maxim: action reveals character. Human beings elevate deception to an art form—-especially with respect to who we really are. The nature is itself unchanging (so thinks Austen), but naughty folks have a vested interest in convincing their compatriots to believe them honest, loyal, courageous, etc. Austen supposes these tangled webs always unravel if one merely observes the actor for an extended period of time. A lout may bedazzle you with his tales, but pay attention and soon enough you’ll find him face down in the gutter or begging you for a bailout.

According to our experts, Austen was at least wrong about human nature. Not only is it not static, it is constantly being reinvented. Yes, the You of yesterday is long gone and only causally—not substantively—related to the You of today. Of course this should jam up our notions of criminality, rehabilitation and the like, but it doesn’t—we are a strange species—and instead guarantees our limitless freedom, our existential potential or some such. Don’t like yourself? No problem; buy this book and in ten easy steps you too can become Somebody Different! I find this a little unnerving, and the neuroscience seems to imply that this as much an American fairy tale as its Enlightenment predecessor, but the underlying point is apt: your nature can be sub- or con- verted and probably has been.

Which brings us back to MacIntyre. Given that you may become radically different, what Austen chronicles as a revelation of true nature is really another product of human cultivation. Constancy is a virtue. What I call constancy is what impels Darcy to act as Darcy always must act, even when (and especially when) it must cost the very things Darcy must want. Austen’s enlightenment anthropology prevents her from seeing what we cannot ignore: consistent day to day, week to week, year to year, decade to decade character is as practiced and as willed as the deceptions which falsely project it.